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Karen B. London
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Concerns About Unleashed Dogs
How should we as a community respond?

In Juliana Keeping’s column Hey Ann Arbor—put your dog on a leash. A short one, she writes about bad experiences with off leash dogs. She shares her own stories and those of a few other people and complains angrily about so many dogs being off leash in violation of the laws of her city.

The comments in response to the article are highly varied and many are as angry as the original article, whether the point was to agree or disagree with her. The whole conversation prompts me to ask some questions: How should we as a community respond? That is, how should people with dogs react to the anger that’s out there?  Are we as a community largely obeying local leash laws with a few violators causing tensions, or could we do a better job overall of following the rules?

It’s worth reading Keeping’s article to hear her perspective, though I advise you to be prepared that you may dislike some of what you read, no matter what your views are. (For example, I objected to her saying, “By the way, if your menacing beast, with its bad breath and muscular jaws, comes near me and my child, I will end your pet.” Such a clear threat to an animal’s life made me very uncomfortable. I also think that Keeping strikes an inflammatory tone rather than one that seeks to find common ground, solutions to issues or even a worthwhile discussion of them.)

Despite these criticisms, I think Keeping touches on some important points that it would be wise for those of us in the dog community to address. The first and most important one is that many towns have so-called leash laws, but they are rarely strictly enforced. She also makes a fair point when she discusses that off leash dogs sometimes cause harm, and that not all people take responsibility for the situation.

For example, I was once out hiking with my kids in an area where dogs are required to be leashed. No person was in sight when an unleashed Malamute roughly knocked over my son, who was then two years old, and I still remember how angry the owner was to (finally) come around the bend, catch up to her dog and find me restraining the dog by holding his collar. (The nasty things she said to me and the fear I had that in her rage she would harm me or my children are pretty memorable, too.)

Additionally, I’ve had many clients whose efforts to help their own reactive dogs be able to walk on leash through the neighborhood were hampered by off leash dogs. When working with a dog with leash reactivity or leash aggression, it can be a major setback to have a loose dog come running up while a person half a block away calls out cheerfully, “Don’t worry! She’s friendly!” Kathleen St. John addressed this particular aspect of the value of leash laws a few months ago in her post Why I Like Leash Laws.

If too many members of our society are not happy with the way that people with dogs are behaving, it will become increasingly difficult for space to be allocated to dog parks or for dogs to have access to public areas including parks and trails. I think it’s so important for a high quality of life that dogs have opportunities to run off leash, but I do think that using leashes in the areas where they are required by law is a responsible course of action.

What do you think of Keeping’s article?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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